The research minion

Rock & Roll Minions” by Daniel Y. Go is marked with CC BY-NC 2.0.

One of the most interesting things I do at work is research. Research can be frustrating, overwhelming, annoying, troublesome and tedious. However, it can also be elating, motivating, joyous and inspiring. The fact that it is so varying is almost the best part of it. It is, however, always time-consuming and a little draining (due to the level 2 thinking (Hello, Kahneman) involved).

When I do my own research projects, this is how the process usually goes:

  • Get an idea and think about turning it into a research project
  • Informal chat with colleagues
  • Forget about it for a while
  • Come back to the idea and try to find some studies or theory to gain more understanding
  • Thinking that my idea is a good one
  • Forget about it for a while – doing some everyday tasks instead because it’s hard to get to the next stage
  • Get my act together and set up a quick draft with some headings, start to write a little in the introduction and think about methods
  • Do some other stuff for a while
  • Drafting questionnaires/ interview questions and writing a little more
  • Reading some more and talking to colleagues
  • Doing some other stuff
  • Finally getting ready to collect data
  • Getting distracted by trying to find the right journal, changes to the methods..
  • etc etc

So – it’s not like I have a very linear process that follows the line charts in a methodology book. However, I am in (some) control over it. If I want to, I can ask for research time and lock myself in my office for a day without Teams, mail etc. As I have said before, research is an activity that must be supported throughout the organization and leaders cannot just decide that we should do more research without also making sure that there is culture for it and time for it.

The other kind of research projects I am involved in are where I am more of a secondary author – still with responsibility for the quality and real contribution (in accordance with the Vancouver rules), but without the control (and responsibility) of the first author. Usually, this is a role I have when I am writing with a faculty member. The involvement varies (within the scope of the aforementioned rules) from setting up searches and writing up this method as well as setting up inclusion/exclusion criteria etc. to being part of defining the question itself and writing the protocol (for reviews) and so on. I love this, too. Writing the protocol can be a little tedious, but I love working with faculty. I really do, and I feel like I push my knowledge and learn a lot, too. The thing I don’t love about this kind of involvement is the lack of control for the project. Yes, I can be a bit of a control freak, I’m not going to deny it, but in this case, no control means that I may have spent a lot of time and energy in to something that might never happen or can happen in so distant a future that it is hard to see the path forward. I am not blaming the faculty here, as some of the things that have happened in the past have also been beyond the faculty’s control. But here are some of the things that have happened:

  • a researcher broke her leg and was on sick leave for so long the project got dropped
  • the format the researchers had chosen were not eligible for the journal that they had chosen and the study therefore it was abandoned
  • the other authors got too busy with their other tasks that the part I was in charge of had to be done over again several times (literature searches are like perishables – they don’t just last for ever)
  • the researcher got sick and the project was handed over to someone else (beyond my reach)
  • the researcher got a new job

And then I feel like a minion. I’m like some trained monkey that knows how to use the databases. Every time something like this happens, I am thinking: “I said yes to the project, I delivered my content well within the time frame, I was prepared to move forward, but then something happened that just washed this down the drain”, which means that I have wasted valuable time and effort into something that may or may not ever come to anything. This has happened to me in my own research projects, too, of course. Sometimes I have discovered that a study already exists and that it’s not worth the time and effort to move ahead, or I may have found that the research method I need cannot be used without more resources than I have etc. But – at least I have some control over this. I get to pull the plug myself.

Again, I’m not going to blame faculty for this. After all, they have their own stuff that is beyond their control, and it must be as frustrating to them as it is to me, but still.. it is sometimes very apparent to me that there are power disparities between us, and that has a big influence on my work and my career.

Co-authorship

Placeholder ImageEarlier this fall I blogged about the roles of academic librarian, and I asked the question: are we academic partners or service providers? (Of course, it is possible to be both, but I wanted to vent my frustration that we never seem to escape the role as someone who gives access to documents and nothing else.) In the blog post I wrote about what rights and responsibilities we (could) have as academic partners, and I wrote that if I give substantial support to researchers, let`s say do all the relevant literature searches for a systematic review, then I expect to be granted co-authorship.

Last week, a professor in medical statistics, Stian Lydersen, expressed an opinion in Universitetsavisa (independent newspaper for NTNU) that while he was co-author of lots of articles, he was not prepared to take responsibility for all content in a paper. (He was talking about academic dishonesty.) He said that his field of expertise is medical statistics, and he was perfectly able to take responsibility for crunching the numbers and presenting them in the paper, but could not always be held responsible for other content in the articles, as some of them fell outside his area of expertise.

This week, two professors at Molde University College state that it is his duty to take responsibility for entire articles where he has co-authorship. These two professors cite the Vancouver guidelines, that clearly states that all authors should be sufficiently involved to be able to take responsibility. The professors continue to state that this is important, otherwise you could end up with research errors that nobody will claim responsibility for. Publication points [Norwegian system awarding publication points, and thereby money to institutions] should not be used as currency, the professors say.

Well, my comment is: it`s already used as currency, and there is little to be done about this as long as we continue with this system. Publication rate is used as background for career advancement, prestige for researchers and money for the institutions. If experts, such as Professor Lydersen, cannot get co-authorship without taking full responsibility for each publication, it presents a problem for all parts. It will be a problem for the experts who can no longer get credit for substantial contributions, and unless he can keep up his publication rate on his own articles within the medical statistics subject, can risk halting his career and damaging his institute. It is a problem for authors who wish to write about important issues within their fields, but no longer has access to experts as Lydersen to help them present statistics in this professional manner. It is also a problem for institutes because they have to find (and pay for) experts who are willing to work for money instead of co-authorships.

It`s probably pretty obvious where I am going with this. If I, in the previously mentioned example, perform database searches for researchers writing a systematic review, I am doing a significant and time-consuming part of the study. I would, in this case, be perfectly able to and willing to take responsibility for any criticism connected to this, for example strategies, wording, selection etc. I could not, however, be supposed to take responsibility for the content or analysis of the articles in the study. I still think I should be granted co-authorship because it would be a significant contribution and partly determine which articles would even be subjected to analysis in the first place.

Publication points are already used as currency. Either we should completely change the system or we cannot in all fairness decide to exclude experts in supporting fields.

Service provider or academic partner: Where to draw the line?

jente sandstrand

Drawing a line?

I have long wanted to write something about the contributions from academic librarians in research projects. First, I wanted to wait until the term was over because I wanted time to think about this, and then I waited because I wanted to find the right words. I wanted to get this right, because this is important to me. Today, I am writing this even though I could have thought some more or found better words.

I have worked in academic libraries for 15 years. During that time, I have changed and the libraries I have worked in has changed along with the institutions they have served. Perhaps even more interesting is that the role of the librarians have changed, too. A few lines of explanation is perhaps needed. (I`ll get to the point, I promise..) I said that I have changed. Yes, I have changed in many ways, but professionally the most significant change has been that I have changed my focus. When I started 15 years ago, my focus was always “Whats in it for my library”. I was very library centric. I wanted a good budget for the library because I wanted freedom to build a good collection, nice furniture etc. (I was a school librarian back then, btw.) After working in a school library, in a ministry library and in a university library, my focus has shifted. I still want the library to have a good budget, but not for the librarys sake – for the patrons. I want a good budget so that we can provide services and academic support to enhance learning and research. I think I have also learned the value of evidence-based practice in libraries. It is important that we have solid research as well as user experience and our own experience and bring this together to build good library practice. It may not seem as a very significant change on paper (or blog), but for me it has changed the way I work. The libraries have changed, too. From being mainly a document provider and a more distant partner (delivery-on-demand) for students, the digitalisation and research support needs have made it possible and necessary to provide new services and to see our roles in a new light.

There are plenty of articles, book chapters etc. that discuss the roles of academic librarians. I am not going to list everything that I have, but see my article on library-faculty collaboration to get an idea (Øvern, 2014). The main point I want to make here and now, though, is that library-faculty collaboration is often problematic because of the skewed power relation between the parties. The librarians know that the route to the students goes via their teachers, and we are desperate to find a way in to the classrooms. Therefore, we usually not only obey our masters` first whistle, but even assume almost doglike admiration for the teachers that see our contributions as something worth “sacrificing valuable class time” (yes, that is a direct quote, but I`ll not give the source) for. (OK. Maybe I exaggerated a little, but then again, maybe I didn`t.) It doesn`t help that we are so trained as service providers, that we find it extremely hard to just say no to people. This way, I think we also often are stuck in unproductive “collaborations”, because we are afraid that if we protest or suggest very different models for teaching, the teachers will stop asking us to contribute all together. But if we never suggest what to us may seem as better ideas, then they will never see our potential as real academic partners either. Librarians generally know more about the faculty than vice versa, an assymetry that both groups are aware of, but only the librarians find problematic (Christiansen, Strombler & Thaxton, 2004, p.117). And as Ekstrand and Seebass (2009) found: librarians are regarded as excellent (service) parners, but that is not the same as seeing them as valuable academic parners (p. 84). Librarians are not integrated in study programmes and often forgotten in planning sessions.

These power relations become even more problematic when it comes to research support. I have several times been asked to help with literature searching etc. in research projects. Once or twice only, have I been told that I will get co-authorship for my efforts. Once or twice. Of course, I wouldn`t dream of demanding co-authorship if my only contribution to the project would be something like suggesting appropriate databases or handing over some search terms that could useful or something like that. But where do I draw the line? When does it become acceptable for me to say, I can do that, but only if I am listed as a co-author?

This is an example (not from reality, but quite close):
Two faculty members, one of whom were also connected to another university, asked me if I could provide support for them for a systematic review. When I asked what kind of support they were looking for it was clear that it is more than just suggesting search strings and doing a few introductory searches in some databases. It was much more than that. Basically, they wanted me to set up tables, do the searches and use a flow chart. In a systematic review, the design of searches, and getting it right in all the databases as well as putting it into tables and flowcharts represents a lot of work. It would be like building the foundation of a house. Yet, I was not offered co-authorship. I asked them a few more questions on their deadlines etc., but before I had received answers and decided to muster up the strength to ask for co-authorship, they informed me that they had found another librarian (from the other university) to do the job.

It seems there is always somebody who is ready to answer when they hear the whistle. Why it was so important for me to get co-authorship? The contribution would have been the same whether my name was on it or not. Yes, but if I could have had my name on it, then I could have sacrificed the very little R&D time I have to my disposal without having to postpone my qualifications programme. If I am to succeed with this, then the little time I have to produce some new knowledge will have to be put to good use. Egotistic? Sure. But for the faculty involved it wouldn`t have mattered as much to share that research point (Norwegian measurement system), but for me it was important. Again – the power relations are not balanced.

So – what should I do? What should WE as a profession do? Is it ok that faculty get a “yes” from somebody else if they get a “no” from me? When should I say no? When should I demand co-authorship? Why is there no guideline for these partnerships?

Where do I draw the line? (Seriously, I`m asking.)


NOTE: This blog entry was not written to, in any way, suggest that faculty is in the habit of exploiting librarians or are trying to belittle me or my contribution. This is not my experience. I have many working collaborations with excellent faculty members that are productive, constructive and interesting. Even in the example I mentioned above, I don`t think that this was done by malice or as an attempt to put me in my place, but rather as a pragmatic way to get the help they wanted as quickly and efficiently as possible. This blog entry was written to emphasise the sometimes problematic situations that arises from the skewed power relations between faculty and librarians, and I have no other agenda than to share my experience with this, and to hope for better guidelines. It is not my intention to offend either faculty or librarians, and I hope therefore that any lack of clarity of thought or words will be forgiven.


References:

Christiansen, L., Stombler, M., & Thaxton, L. (2004). A Report on Librarian-Faculty Relations from a Sociological Perspective. The journal of academic librarianship, 30(2), 116-121. doi:DOI: 10.1016/j.acalib.2004.01.003

Ekstrand, B., Seebass, G. (2009). Integrativ informationskompetens: Diskursöverbryggande samarbete mellan akademi och bibliotek. In B. Hansson, A. Lyngfeldt (Ed.), Pedagogiskt arbete i teori och praktik (pp. 83-101). Lund: BTJ Förlag.

Øvern, K. M. (2014). Faculty-library collaboration: two pedagogical approaches. Journal of Information Literacy, 8(2), 36-55. doi:http://dx.doi.orghttp://dx.doi.org/10.11645/8.2.1910